While the state’s commercial salmon catch has broken records this summer, guide businesses haven’t fared as well.
There are no final numbers yet, but fishing guides have said that 2013 was something of a mixed bag.
The pink salmon boosting commercial catches are not a favored target for sport anglers, and popular sport fisheries haven’t seen as strong of returns.
Kenai River Sportfishing Association Executive Director Ricky Gease said that the poor king salmon returns in recent years are affecting everyone on the river, including guides and their clients.
Dave Goggia, a Kenai charter operator and president of the Kenai River Professional Guide Association, said that every year that fishing is restricted leads to fewer bookings for the following year.
“Our business just keeps kind of shrinking,” he said.
Goggia said Kenai guides are also seeing a shift in when people fish that river.
“People are not coming up here early,” Goggia said.
May bookings are nearly gone, and June and July bookings are down, but August fishing is on the rise. That’s because people can reliably fish without worrying about king salmon closures.
“People can catch some silvers and have a good time on the water,” Goggia said.
King salmon, however, make up the bulk of the guided effort on the Kenai, Goggia said, so it’s still a decline overall, although there was slightly more king opportunity this summer than in 2012.
This summer, guided anglers on the Kenai spent an estimated 1,948 hours targeting early run king salmon, and 41,284 hours targeting late run kings, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s creel survey.
The late run effort is an increase compared to 2012, when guided anglers spent 20,834 hours targeting kings, but far less than 2011, when they spent 61,128 hours on those fish.
The early run Kenai king salmon effort is a decline from both 2012 and 2011, when guided anglers fished for 12,732 hours and 28,128 hours, respectively.
Fishing on both the early and late run was limited this year, and the early run did not meet its escapement goals, although the late run came in just greater than the minimum goal of 15,000 when counting ended in August.
Less guided fishing activity translates into an economic loss for communities dependent on those businesses. According to a 2007 ADFG study, Alaska anglers spend an average of $277 per day for fishing trips.
Gease said that despite the decrease in guided effort, there has continued to be some interest in personal use and sport fishing on the Kenai Peninsula.
On peak days this summer, Gease estimated several thousand people were fishing from the mouth of the Kenai all the way up to Skilak Lake.
The unguided anglers have more of a focus on reds and silvers, however, and king salmon fishing has generally decreased.
According to the creel survey data, unguided angling for late run kings actually saw a bigger decrease than guided anglers from 2011 to 2012, and less of a rebound this summer.
Gease and Goggia both said that silver fishing on the Kenai has been better than king fishing, and is helping guides in the later part of the season.
Although effort is winding down, Goggia said the silver salmon and rainbow trout trips will continue this month.
For now, most of the season information is anecdotal, aside from the creel survey. Preliminary logbook data for saltwater operations likely won’t be ready until later in the fall, just in advance of the December North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting, and freshwater data may not be out until February.
In Valdez, a strong run of silvers also helped guides, said Ken Larson, who owns Sanity Charters.
“The silver fishing was great, a lot better than last year,” he said.
Larson said the silver run came in early, and stayed strong through Labor Day, which helped get the word out that it was a good year for them.
He had “lots of calls” and as much business as he could handle, given that he decided to run charters after the summer had already started.
Overall, though, Larson said he thought there were fewer boats targeting silvers out in the harbor than in years past.
Silvers are the big draw in Valdez. Halibut catches were tougher, Larson said.
In Southeast Alaska, Southeast Alaska Guides Organization Executive Director Heath Hilyard said the summer varied by area and business model.
Hilyard said the good weather has lead to an increase in walk-on charter clients in some communities, but poor returns in past years and restrictive regulations lead to decreases elsewhere.
“The weather was so nice, they wanted to go and do a half day and see what they could get,” Hilyard said.
Overall, Hilyard said that some operators have told them they’re seeing the best fishing in years, while others have had mixed results.
Regionwide, Hilyard said guides might have seen a slight uptick in bookings.
Some communities, like Petersburg, have fewer species available to them nearby, so guided fishing winds down for much of July. Then, halibut was the only target species, and the opportunity to catch just one fish in a limited size range was not enough to get people out fishing.
For Southeast operators that own lodges and market multi-day trips, king salmon and halibut restrictions made it harder to sell a multi-day package if the angler can’t keep many fish. That’s especially true in areas where there’s less opportunity to catch other species.
But other operators offer excursions, like wildlife watching, or shorter trips, which can be easier to market and especially benefit from the weather, Hilyard said.
It also helped that in some communities, like Petersburg, the fishing was generally good, so people were hearing that others were faring well, and decided to go out, he said.